Mars is home to dust storms, several robots, and as of today, a new crater. Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show a fresh impact crater on the surface. Conditions on Mars may eventually sweep the details away, but the reliable probe has spotted the crater while it’s still sharp.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been checking out the red planet for more than a decade, allowing it to track changes on the surface over time. In the past, it has seen dust storms, dead rovers, and crashed landers. In March of 2019, it saw something a bit more distinctive: a new crater roughly 49 feet to 53 feet (15 to 16 meters) wide in the Valles Marineris region not far from the equator.
MRO is constantly orbiting the planet, updating its map in vertical strips. Over the years, the orbiter has spotted small dark smudges indicating small impacts, but this is the first time it’s caught sight of a large crater. Based on the dates of previous photos, the object smacked into Mars between February 18, 2017 and March 20, 2019. So, the crater could be as young as several months.
This image comes from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the MRO. It shows a black impact point in the center with a radiating aura of gray and blue terrain. The HiRISE camera can capture color images, but only in a strip down the middle of its field of view. Luckily, the new crater was inside the color strip. The gray tones are probably basaltic rock that’s usually covered by dust. The areas with bluish tint could indicate traces of ice. Yes, even near the equator that’s a possibility.
KABOOM! Before and after images of a meteorite forming a brand new impact crater on Mars. Sometime between 18 Feb 2017 and 20 March 2019. pic.twitter.com/TWXtUoP5NA
— Peter Grindrod (@Peter_Grindrod) June 12, 2019
The team estimates the object that gouged this hole in Mars was no more than five feet (1.5m) wide. Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere, so the object wouldn’t have slowed down much before plowing into the surface. Unfortunately, it will be hard to learn much more about the crater. The spectrograph on MRO known as the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) ran out of coolant years ago and can’t operate in as many wavelengths without it.
NASA only expected the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to work for about two years, but the spacecraft is still going strong. NASA has no plans to retire the MRO at this time.